"I don't know why he has to spoil the season by bringing that up. For him every day is Good Friday." Her complaint was against Father's homily, which underscored that the baby Jesus was born to die. Yes, Good Friday, but Easter, too. Although Father insisted that we should not rush to Easter.
In the daily office, the reading for March 25, the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas, is from Leo the Great. "Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that is incapable of suffering, was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other."
This God-man, this God-baby, is born to suffer and to die. In the last several decades it has become almost a commonplace among Christians to say that God suffers with us in our suffering. Many draw great consolation from this, and understandably so. And yet the claim that God suffers is not without its problems. It cannot be so simple as the maxim that misery loves company, from which it follows that God is the very best company to have in our misery.
God, the Great Tradition insists, is self-subsistent, the perfection of all perfections, without lack or need, which necessarily entails the truth that he is impassible, which is to say that he is incapable of suffering. These great matters are discussed with luminous clarity by Fr. Thomas Weinandy in "Does God Suffer?" (First Things, November 2001). The answer to the title question is no, and understanding why the answer is no is crucial to understanding why God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, condescended to become the baby in the womb of Mary.
The one person, Jesus Christ, both true God and true man, stooped into our littleness to draw us up to the greatness of life eternal, which is not this life infinitely extended but is the very life of God. From the beginning and through the millennia, human beings looked upward in search of the divine. Mary looked downward, at the baby in her arms. She looked into the very face of God. Finitum capax infiniti, the finite is capable of the infinite. This is the central wonder, the inexhaustible mystery, of Christmas.
There is today a resurgence of interest in Mary. This is powerfully evident also among evangelical Protestants, and Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School has a marvelous article explaining why in the forthcoming issue of First Things. Mary is also the subject of the current phase of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. We are taking our time with this subject, refusing to settle for either easy agreement or easy disagreement, for Mary is at the heart of salvation's story.
There can be no opposition, there can be not the slightest tension, between devotion to Mary and devotion to Christ. As both Protestants and many Catholics have failed to understand, to draw close to Christ is to draw close to Mary, and to draw close to Mary is to draw close to Christ. Mary is the model of discipleship and the icon of the Church precisely because she wants nothing for herself apart from her Son and her Lord. The last recorded words of Mary, at the wedding of Cana, are these: "Do whatever he tells you." All devotion to Mary is devotion to Christ. She seeks no honor apart from her Son and her Lord; she has no message other than "Do whatever he tells you."
"Let it be to me according to your word," she said, deeply troubled yet more deeply trusting. Might she have said no? St. Bonaventure has a moving dialogue with Mary. "Please say yes, Mary. The whole creation awaits your yes." And she said yes. And thus did she become the first and foremost in creation's response to the love of the Creator who became as of that moment a creature in her womb in order to lead sinful humanity into the glory of God. Finitum capax infiniti. O come, let us adore him.
Court Watchers and Pro-Lifers: If you enjoyed Hadley Arkes' predictions for future Supreme Court jurisprudence on questions centering on abortion in his opinion piece, "This Heartbreaking Court," in the October 2006 issue of First Things, then you don't want to miss Professor Arkes' follow-up article in the January 2007 issue. In "The Kennedy Court," Arkes offers incisive analysis of the oral arguments on Gonzales v. Carhart, the partial-birth abortion case, and shows how Justice Anthony Kennedy may be positioning himself as the swing vote on the court now that Sandra Day O'Connor is retired. Look for it on newsstands today. Or better yet, subscribe now.
Natural law and Protestantism? Luther, Calvin, and the natural law? Only as antagonists, right? Not so, argues J. Daryl Charles. In his review of Stephen J. Grabill's Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, in the January 2007 issues of First Things, Charles argues for a return to the founding fathers of Protestantism, and in doing so, for a return to their embrace of the natural law. If you were a subscriber, you'd have the issue already. Shouldn't you subscribe today?